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Transcript of ABC TV Broadcast: 22/05/2009 Reporter: Kate Arnott

TAMARA OUDYN, PRESENTER: When the February bushfires swept through the Central Highlands, millions of native animals were killed. Ten of Australia’s most threatened species were hit, including Victoria’s faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum. The tiny marsupial is now on the brink of extinction and an urgent recovery program is underway… Kate Arnott reports.

SERA BLAIR, FRIENDS OF LEADBEATER’S POSSUM: I’m very concerned that Leadbeater’s Possum won’t recover from this major fire. It is a very serious concern because their population was already on the edge of extinction.

KATE ARNOTT, REPORTER: Apart from some patchy new growth in the charred forests of the Central Highlands and Lake Mountain, signs of life are virtually non existent. When fire roared through this area, wildlife had nowhere to hide. The inferno was especially devastating for one of Australia’s most endangered species, the Leadbeater’s possum. It’s estimated that nearly half of the tiny marsupials’ habitat was destroyed.

SERA BLAIR: Before the fires, we thought there were probably only about 2,000 animals left. And when you lose almost half your habitat, you’re looking at probably half of your population loss. So there might even be less than 1,000 animals. And so that’s getting extremely critical.

KATE ARNOTT: A desperate search is now on to find out just how many possums are still alive.

JOANNE ANTROBUS, PARK RANGER: This tree is one of the few locations where the box was damaged but survived and a single animal survived at this box.

KATE ARNOTT: Researchers think up to 300 Leadbeater’s possum lived on the misty Lake Mountain plateau before the fires, either in tree hollows or specially installed nesting boxes designed to boost their numbers. Early signs are that few survived.

Because they’re a nocturnal species, infra red cameras were installed. For hours there was nothing. Then to the relief of park rangers, six possums appeared. Not many, but enough to indicate a breeding pair. No more have been spotted since.

JOANNE ANTROBUS: So here at Lake Mountain we’ve reinstalled all of our boxes. We’ve put up additional boxes where there’s been some vegetation survived the fire. We’ve erected boxes where there’s natural known tree hollows, hoping that the animals may have survived.

KATE ARNOTT: Those that did make it through the fires now face starvation. As winter sets in there’s virtually nothing for the possums to eat. For the first time, park rangers and volunteers have been forced to intervene. They’ve put up feeding stations full of mealworms, fly pupae and fruit.

JOANNE ANTROBUS: It’s never been done in the field before. It is the recommended diet for captive animals, but it’s never been trialled in the wild before. So we’re trialling it at three locations. We’ll be using surveillance cameras to monitor whether the animals use those stations.

KATE ARNOTT: Professor David Lindenmayer has spent the last two decades researching the Leadbeater’s possum as part of his work into the affects of fire on biodiversity. His team is part of the Leadbeater’s recovery program.

DAVID LINDENMAYER, ECOLOGIST: Many, many Victorians really do care about what happens to their faunal emblem. It’s a very charismatic animal and it’s a true Phoenix of the biological world. Leadbeater’s possum was thought to be extinct for most of the 1900s and in the early 1960s, the species was rediscovered. So it’s sort of risen from the ashes and we don’t want to see it basically become extinct again.

KATE ARNOTT: There’s no doubt the bushfires had a severe impact on the Leadbeater’s possum and surviving the winter will be tough enough. But environmentalists say there’s another threat facing the species: the logging of fire damaged areas. Salvage logging, as it’s known, is the harvesting of dead trees after bushfires. It’s mainly done for economic purposes to provide jobs to fire hit communities and timber for the reconstruction effort.

LACHLAN SPENCER, VICFORESTS: Harvesting in certain areas is quite intense and certainly localized we have intensive harvesting regimes. Though across the broad extent of the fire there was 200,000 to 300,000 hectares of fire. We’ll be harvesting in only a 2,000 to 3,000 hectares across the next one to two years of salvage.

DAVID LINDENMAYER: Salvage logging won’t have a positive effect – let’s put it that way. And what we need to do is make sure that the way the salvage logging is done minimises the negative effect. And so, areas that were important habitat for Leadbeater’s before the fire shouldn’t be salvage logged after the fire.

LACHLAN SPENCER: We are committed to identifying all the habitat within the areas which we are planning for harvesting and excluding them from harvesting.

KATE ARNOTT: But some conservationists say it’s impossible to identify all of the sites where surviving possums may be and they’re concerned about the impact of salvage logging on future Leadbeater’s habitat.

SERA BLAIR: It has the same impact as a clear fell logging coup, which means that they don’t leave any big old trees to become stag trees, which are the trees that Leadbeater’s and a lot of other forest animals nest in. So, salvage logging’s pretty detrimental to their habitat and basically cancels it out for a couple hundred years.

KATE ARNOTT: The effort to save the possum in the wild is made more critical by the fact there are none in captivity. The animals have to be kept in colonies which take a lot of time and money to look after. So zoos like Healesville Sanctuary decided before the fires that it was better to put the money towards preserving the species in its natural habitat. Since the fires, captive breeding programs have again been considered and rejected, meaning everything now rests on the success of this field recovery program.

DAVID LINDENMAYER: I’m very concerned that Leadbeater’s possum won’t make it after this major disturbance, and so it’s critically important to monitor the population. The hope is that they might begin to recover in the next 10 to 15 years, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. The way we treat the forests now for the next two, three, five, 10 years will make a big difference as to whether or not the species survives.